Today's entry is about two friends, both musicians. One is a violinist named Adam DeGraf and the other is a vocalist, a baritone named Tadd Sipes. I’ll tell you their stories in a moment.
The history of music is as distant, vast, and varied as human life itself. From the time humans evolved into the species we are today, music has always been a part of life. With the rich musical traditions of Southwest Virginia, it is difficult for many of us to envision a world without it. Music holds the power of emotion over us. Music touches our hearts and soothes our soul. For those of us unable to produce it, musicians possess a special gift.
Sadly, many musicians, especially those who work professionally, are as often cursed as well as blessed. This notion was conveyed first to me by Adam, who lives in Lewisburg, West Virginia. When I interviewed him for my first book, The Spine of the Virginias, he told me of his surprising journey. He was a Jewish kid from Chicago, who at a young age was recognized for his extraordinary talent. As with many prodigies, he was soon ushered to one of the finest music conservatories in the nation. Before graduating with his master’s degree, he was second principal violinist at the Richmond Symphony. After several years, however, he became disenchanted, finding a lack of connection between the musicians and the artists.
Adam was interviewed by a psychologist who was studying job satisfaction in professional symphony musicians. After hearing of Adam’s ennui, he asked Adam what he expected for the rest of his career. Adam’s goal was better orchestras and bigger cities. The psychologist told him job satisfaction dropped as orchestras became bigger and better. So Adam quit the symphony and did the Green Acres thing, buying a piece of land in rural Monroe County, West Virginia, and a tractor. “We just knew it was the right move for us. We did the move totally on faith.”
Adam joined with a ragtime pianist in a duet called Pianafiddle and did some solo concerts, and in doing so revitalized his zest for music. He found a connection with his audiences that had always been missing. “I will tell you something and I believe this with all my heart. The proof is in the applause. Applause is an amazing thing. In our first concert with Pianafiddle, our audiences were screaming, hooting and hollering. I was ecstatic!”
Which brings me to Tadd.
I have been in Tadd’s presence exactly once and have never heard him sing. I met his wife, Erica, a few weeks ago and we’ve formed a friendship. She’s a musician herself, an accomplished pianist and cellist from San Francisco with bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. She told me Tadd was an assistant professor of music at Virginia Tech but had just been denied tenure. In the academic world, that’s the kiss of death; essentially he’d been fired. She loves Blacksburg and the nurturing musical world it has provided her, but this loss to their family was, at least on the surface, devastating.
My career is as twisted as the road up Mountain Lake, with triumphs and failures too many to count. But I’ve always landed on my feet and I’ve learned what Adam learned: your heart will take you on the road to life’s successes. I offered to speak with Tadd.
So he and I got together, chatting around their dining room table. He called his situation a “de-frocking.” He said Tech had offered him another year on the faculty, essentially as a lame-duck instructor. Taking it was tempting for the obvious reasons: another year of financial security and the all-too-important health insurance. Most friends suggested he accept, but I was the contrarian. I argued, “It will be a toxic environment and you’ll be miserable. You’ll be working with faculty members who know you’ve been jettisoned. You’ll be unable to form relationships with your students. You’ll need the poise of an angel to do a good job, and doing a less than good job is poison for the soul.”
Was his firing justified? I don’t know. Is he a good teacher? Don’t know that, either. I do know this, as it comes through quickly and forcefully: he’s a talented, intelligent, intense, hard-working man.
I learned two days later from his Facebook page that he’d turned down Tech’s offer. He wrote, “(I am) happy to be given an opportunity for course correction. I have officially decided not to teach at Virginia Tech next year, but instead (with my family) decided to become real Blacksburg townies and find a way to stay in the place we love with the people we have grown to love and do the things we love."
Our community is a better place because Erica and Tadd Sipes are here, bringing their personal grace and the joy and emotion of music. Now the rest of us need to step up to the plate, to offer the help, encouragement, and support that will let them find a way to make it work.